We say ‘a little’ because much of the film is not restrained at all: when the music comes, it’s loud; when the deaths occur, they’re gruesome; and when the plot kicks in, it’s pure, wild fantasy.
The film takes us through five chapters. First, in 1941, Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known as ‘The Jew Hunter’, discovers and kills a Jewish family in France; only the youngest daughter gets away.
Then we’re introduced to the ‘basterds’, a gang of eight Jewish-American soldiers who, roaming Nazi-occupied France, murder German soldiers and collect their scalps. They’re led by Pitt, but oddly they’re not on screen much. Pitt is lively but he disappears for a long time and is upstaged by Waltz, who gives a teasing turn of sly comedy and cruel charm. His scenes are the film’s best.
For the final chapters, we leap to Paris in 1944, where the two stories collide. The girl who fled the Nazis, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is now running a cinema (of course). A Nazi private, Frederick (Daniel Brühl), takes a shine to her. It turns out that his gun-toting heroics are being immortalised in a film produced by Goebbels, who decides that Shosanna’s cinema is perfect for the premiere. Shosanna and the ‘basterds’ decide that the screening is their chance to strike.
There’s still Tarantino’s signature style – the extended, know-it-all dialogue, the pop-cultural nods. But this lacks the stylistic pizzazz of Tarantino’s best. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he takes the history of cinema more seriously than the history of Europe. References to films abound: Michael Fassbender‘s British spy (who has an amusing, if silly, Dr Strangelove-like scene with a superior played by Mike Myers) used to be a critic and regurgitates what sounds like a Wikipedia entry on German film, while another character wonders whether he prefers Chaplin or the French silent actor Max Linder.
What’s not clear is what Tarantino wants to achieve: Inglourious Basterds is an immature work that doesn’t know whether it’s a pastiche, a spoof, a counterfactual drama, a revenge tragedy or a character comedy. But perhaps the biggest faux pas is introducing real historical characters. Why does he have to court implausibility by dragging in a loony Hitler and introducing Goebbels?
‘Subtle’ is not a word in Tarantino’s lexicon. At the film’s heart is a fatal attempt to conflate fact with fiction and a celebration of vengeance that’s misplaced and embarrassing. Loyal fans expecting a patchwork of Tarantino tics and quirks – Pulp History or Kill Hitler – might not be disappointed. Those expecting anything approaching progress, cinematically or ideologically, probably will be.